Mixed views as education cuts take hold

Margaret Tully, Moira Mahon, Michael LynchPhoto by Shelley Corcoran
Cash strapped schools are being forced to postpone essential maintenance works and even cut back on everyday items such as paper and photocopying duties as education reductions take hold.

Cash strapped schools are being forced to postpone essential maintenance works and even cut back on everyday items such as paper and photocopying duties as education reductions take hold.

Those are just some of the findings drawn from a survey of secondary schools carried out by the Leader across Co Longford over the past seven days.

And in a further warning shot to government officials, the challenges facing second level managers could reach tipping point should any further reductions arrive ahead of the new academic year in September.

Principal of Scoil Mhuire in Longford town, Paul Costello, said there has been precious little let up in the financial reality facing schools in recent months.

“It’s very difficult,” he confided. “We have less staff, less money and more demand, but that’s right across the sector. As always the middle people are hardest hit. The back to school allowance will cover the uniform, or most of it. Some people do look for help with that and we have helped people. I don’t really encourage it, but if people do come, I will help if I can.”

Mr Costello said daily tasks such as photocopying and other stationery costs have been trimmed somewhat in order to balance the books.

“We do a certain amount of fundraising and have a very good parents council as we do staff. Since 2000, an equalisation programme has been going but that has been suspended,” he said. “You are required to do a budget and while I haven’t had to send anyone for redeployment, they (government) can’t keep cutting.”

In Lanesboro, economic difficulties appear just as stark. Principal of the south Longford town’s Community College, Jimmy Flanagan said the availabilty of fewer special needs assistants (SNAs) was beginning to steadily take its toll.

“Certainly it’s not getting any better,” he admitted. “The prospects for next year are poor in terms of getting sufficient cover for our needs. It’s (special needs) one of the weakest areas and would be something we would feel strongly about. This is being cut and pared back and it will affect life in the school for those children.”

Besides aiding those children in need of behavioural support, workforce numbers more generally have likewise been adversely hit by economic clawbacks.

“Staffing levels were tight this year and next year they will be tighter. For instance, both the deputy principal and principal are back teaching and middle management has suffered too. We have lost one but some schools nationwide might have lost 30 to 40 per cent and that then falls back on the principal,” he added.

But it’s not just personnel changes which secondary school principals fear most. The suspension of the Summer Works Scheme used to carry out small and medium scale works on school buildings has left some school managers wondering what the future may hold.

“I think that’s the biggest cause for concern for many schools at the moment,” said Cnoc Mhuire Principal Moira Mahon. “That was used for carrying out small projects, things like refurbishing toilets, repairing flooring, things that you couldn’t cover in your (annual) budget. I mean we have replaced windows and doors that would have been in the original school building since 1969. That (scheme) has been put on the back burner and as a result, projects we had hoped to do are all now on the long finger.”

Like her colleague, Mr Costello in Longford town’s all girls Scoil Mhuire, Ms Mahon said reductions to capitation grants have also made life more difficult for schools. This, coupled with rising utility costs linked to oil and electricity bills, has inflicted ever greater financial demands on second level establishments.

“Capitation grant cuts are very significant. If you count it all up since 2009, we would be down nine per cent and yet things like oil, they haven’t fallen,” she said.

On the flip side, a number of schools said there were positive signs starting to emerge. Despite her sobering analysis, Ms Mahon said she hoped “good times” lay ahead for the county’s wider second level education system.

In nearby Moyne Community School its principal, Des Cullen, said no reductions to services or subject choices have had to be made, with enrolment levels returning slightly higher numbers than those of 12 months ago.

Of the remaining schools who took and returned calls from the Leader, Templemichael College principal Sorcha Ni Donnacha replied: “We are fine,” when asked about what, if any, budget difficulties the Longford town based school had encountered in recent months.